Tree issue leads legislator to reconsider Pepco law

Original Source | By: Kate S. Alexander / Gazette.net

As Potomac residents await a hearing in their suit to stop Pepco from cutting down their trees, lawmakers are questioning what can be done to control how the utility goes about meeting its mandate for reliability.

The General Assembly in 2011 passed a law requiring utilities to improve reliability, but Pepco's aggressive tree-cutting and trimming to meet that mandate has the law's chief sponsor wondering if an amendment is needed.

"There seems like there could be some ambiguity and some gaps that would be areas that we would take a look at," Sen. Brian J. Feldman said.

Feldman (D-Dist. 15) of Potomac was lead sponsor on the bill while serving in the House of Delegates.

"I want to see how this litigation plays out and where the court comes down. The court may find areas really in need of clarification. I'm open-minded to looking at all that," he said.

Residents in the Potomac Crest development approached Feldman with concerns when Pepco marked many large, mature trees on their properties for removal. The utility has cited a 1950s agreement as its permission to enter private property and cut or remove trees within 75 feet of the utility-owned right of way that abuts the development.

As Potomac residents await a hearing in their suit to stop Pepco from cutting down their trees, lawmakers are questioning what can be done to control how the utility goes about meeting its mandate for reliability.

The General Assembly in 2011 passed a law requiring utilities to improve reliability, but Pepco's aggressive tree-cutting and trimming to meet that mandate has the law's chief sponsor wondering if an amendment is needed.

"There seems like there could be some ambiguity and some gaps that would be areas that we would take a look at," Sen. Brian J. Feldman said.

Feldman (D-Dist. 15) of Potomac was lead sponsor on the bill while serving in the House of Delegates.

"I want to see how this litigation plays out and where the court comes down. The court may find areas really in need of clarification. I'm open-minded to looking at all that," he said.

Residents in the Potomac Crest development approached Feldman with concerns when Pepco marked many large, mature trees on their properties for removal. The utility has cited a 1950s agreement as its permission to enter private property and cut or remove trees within 75 feet of the utility-owned right of way that abuts the development.

Several of those residents sued Pepco, asking a Montgomery County Circuit County judge to stop the utility from removing the trees before the legality of the agreement could be determined.

Feldman said he is waiting for the court to hear the case before he considers any legislative action. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Oct. 9.

But when it comes to tree management, Feldman questioned what factors, if any, the utility takes into account before it decides to remove trees.

Pepco has declined to comment on the case. However, spokeswoman Courtney Nogas said the utility's work is critical to providing safe and reliable electric service its customers.

Gregg Berman, a plaintiff in the case, said the utility appears to want to remove the trees, some which are too small to even reach the power lines, because the trees might some day fall and cause a problem. To the residents' knowledge, no outage has been caused by the trees on their properties. Berman said the utility has been pruning the trees for years.

Montgomery County Councilman Roger Berliner said the suit is emblematic of a broad concern with how Pepco has gone about meeting its reliability mandate.

And while Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Bethesda, a former energy attorney, said he believes the suit will likely be decided on narrow grounds as it relates to the 1950s agreement, the case highlights a general desire for some protection against what many view as the utility's over-aggressive cutting of trees that don't pose a threat to electric reliability.

"Unless these trees are dead or dying, the notion that you would take trees down because they might fall does strike me as a little extreme," he said.

Berliner attempted to pass county legislation to provide protection against overly-aggressive tree management by utilities, but the absolute regulatory authority of the Maryland Public Service Commission when it comes to utilities put the kibosh on the bill.

When asked what the county can do, Berliner said, "We have no authority over Pepco."

Via Gazette

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